By Roger Moore
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
Screen comedy has taken a decided turn toward the blue in recent years, driven by such runaway raunchy hits as “The Hangover” and “Tropic Thunder.” You can trace the trend back to “Wedding Crashers” or even “There’s Something About Mary,” and the mainstreaming of comic crude has only picked up steam of late.
But it’s taken a while for female-centered comedies to catch up in the cursing and crudity.
“And it’s about time,” cracks Kristen Wiig, whose “Bridesmaids” (2011) first offered up equal time in the “talk dirty to me” department. There was “Bachelorette” that same year, and the rise of comic actress Melissa McCarthy (“Identity Thief,” “The Heat”) suggests that parity in profanity is fast becoming reality.
Which leads us to “The To Do List,” a filthy and funny “John Hughes-style” teen sex comedy centered on a smart but naive girl (Aubrey Plaza) learning every sex act and its slang description over the course of her last summer before college.
“There’s no better time than now for ladies to have their turn in the talking-dirty-about-sex department,” says Plaza (TV’s “Parks & Recreation”), the 29-year-old who plays graduating high school senior Brandy in the film. “Creating Brandy, I just drew on my own memories of being that age, where you got your information and what you did with it.”
Bill Hader, who plays Willy, the stuck-in-slackerdom pool manager who witnesses Brandy’s blundering summer of sexual research, is married to the film’s writer-director, Maggie Carey, who based this 1993 period piece on her own teen years growing up in Boise, Idaho.
“I don’t know if we’ve made a parody of those John Hughes movies,” Hader, who’s 35, says. “But I felt we were making a raunchy version of ‘Sixteen Candles’ all along.
“They’re both films about girls, told from their point of view. ‘Sixteen Candles’ was more innocent — not really a sex comedy that way. She just had a crush on a guy. But you give that an R-rating and filter it through how Maggie felt at that age, and you get our version of that classic John Hughes story.”
In the film (opening Friday), Brandy, a nerdy valedictorian, is peer-pressured into believing that her college years will be fraught with peril if she doesn’t acquire some sexual experience over the summer. Her sex-savvy girlfriend (Alia Shawkat) and older sister (Rachel Bilson) fill her in, and the ever-organized Brandy creates a “To Do List,” which she promptly, and awkwardly, sets out to check off.
“It’s a time in any teenager’s life that’s really intense, when you’re kind of prepared to believe you know everything — confident,” Plaza says. “But underneath all that there is a well of insecurities and fears. Brandy is confident about things she shouldn’t be.”
Hader helped his writer-director wife embellish this account of those awkward years with his own memories of that age.
“Maggie based it on conversations she and her friends had back then, growing up. I was 15 in 1993, and I know that the girls I knew back then read Cosmopolitan and talked about sex with a whole lot more knowledge than the guys. The guys? We didn’t know anything. You’d be with a girl and go, ‘Whoa, how’d you know THAT? Um, OK.’”
Which suggests that whatever its other selling points, “The To Do List” is an R-rated acknowledgement of that ancient observation that “girls mature faster than boys.”
“Honestly, when we were doing the movie, the frank sex talk and the fact it was coming from girls never crossed my mind,” Hader says. “But as the movie is coming out, people are bringing this up a lot.”
Plaza agrees. “It wasn’t a discussion on the set,” she says. “And since it isn’t a problem with a comedy starring mostly guys, that’s only fair, right?”